Tami Simon: You're listening to "Insights at the Edge." Today my guest is Will Johnson. For more than 30 years, Will has taught Buddhist meditation and is a trained Rolfer®, applying Ida Rolf's somatic healing principles. He's the founder and director of the Institute for Embodiment Training, which combines Western somatic practices with Eastern meditation techniques. He's the author of the books The Posture of Meditation and The Spiritual Practices of Rumi, and with Sounds True a new audio learning series titled Awakening the Body: The Path of Somatic Surrender, where listeners attune naturally to the many subtle dimensions of physical sensations and move effortlessly into the unified field of pure sensation, the realm of the liberated body itself. In this episode of "Insights at the Edge," Will and I spoke about balancing the auditory, visual, and tactical fields of perception and how this balance opens up to all experience. We also talked about Will's experience as a professional Rolfer and how that has informed his work in embodiment training. And finally, we explore the Sufi practice of gazing, and how gazing relates to embodiment.
Will, you introduced a word to me in your program with Sounds True that I find very interesting: "somataphobia"—that we live in a culture that you say is somataphobic. So tell me what this means, for a culture to be somataphobic.Will Johnson: Essentially, what I view within our culture is the "entered into" experience of body—simply giving the feeling presence permission to present itself is considered taboo. And I do believe that we are literally fearful and irritated—in other words, the "phobic" part of this—around this extraordinary feeling presence that tragically has been rendered taboo for a long time in many of the developed cultures on the planet.
Just to give you a background on that: My inquiry into all this started early on in my 20s, when I started, frankly, re-inhabiting my body. What I mean by that is recognizing that I wasn't just a floating mind in space, but this actual physical body had substance, tactility, palpability, corporeality—you could feel it. It's a feeling presence. And what I got to realizing is that there is sensation. It's tactile, on every single part of the body down to the smallest cell. If you hold out your hand with your palm up, you can feel this very easily. You can feel that shimmer, the vibratory quality of body. And even though these sensations are unbelievably small in size, and they oscillate at an unimaginably rates of vibratory frequency, we can still very clearly and precisely feel this as energetic flow.
So the inquiry becomes, if these sensations are there all the time, and then what is there to experience was that the more I gave myself permission to actually feel them, the better that felt in my body and the clearer I would become in my mind. So if these sensations exist and their embrace creates such a wholesome effect, why don't we feel them? The answer to why don't feel them is that we have a large door that says, "Danger, don't enter! Taboo! Don't go anywhere near or surrender to this extraordinary feeling presence of the body." And that is, in a nutshell, the origin of what I call this somataphobic bias of our culture.
TS: So what is it that we're afraid of, whether it's as individuals or as a culture?
WJ: I think it's the potency of what sits in the bodies of everyone of us. We surrender to these deep, deep energies—these extraordinarily rich webs of sensation—and what starts happening is that consciousness shifts. What tends to occur is what I call the quality of consciousness that passes as normal in the world at large, which is essentially a fairly disembodied consciousness.
Most of us, much of the time, get lost in the thought stream, the semiconscious and voluntary internal monologue of the mind—all of those thoughts. And we have very little awareness of the tactile presence that I'm referring to. I'd argue even further that when we're off and lost in the mind and we're not really seeing so much of what's in front of us or hearing what's here to be heard—but having said that, it's the tactile feel that we are literally the most out of touch with. So making this shift from this place that we are very, very familiar [with]—which is essentially a kind of disembodied consciousness—into a more natural, accepting, relaxed into, embodied consciousness does involve a kind of radical shift of how we experience ourself and our relationship to the world.
When you take this to a spiritual extreme, you can open yourself to some sayings, like out of the Sufi [tradition], that say we all have to die before we die, and that's actually the way that we come alive. What they mean by that is letting go. This quality of consciousness that passes is normal in the world at large, but the Sufis call the consciousness a separation, and make this shift into a more dissolved, merged, natural condition. But it's scary! [It's scary] letting go of that oh-so-familiar place of knowing who I am, and literally feeling it dissolve away into another dimension. Yes, it is very, very nice there, and one can function very well there, but it's different. It's scary for most of us because we cling.
This is basic dharma: we cling to these concepts and notions of who I am, even though those concepts and notions are perhaps based on accepting a great deal of tension and holding at the levels of the body and comfortable patterns of thought in the mind. But that forms us. We identify ourselves with the speaker of the thought. So when you pull the plug on the speaker, for many people initially, we're not really sure that is something we want to embrace. That, again, is what I think is the origin of, certainly, the fear.
TS: So you're actually saying something quite radical here, which is that—and see if I have this correctly—if we tune into this tactile, shimmering flow that you're describing, that our normal sense of solid identity won't hold up.
WJ: I think that's actually true, and I would say that, or hear that, through the lens of dharma teachings. What lets go is the quality of mind that causes limitations, that causes pain, that has me believing who I am is this egoic entity named "I." We all have the same name for that part of ourselves. It's somehow poured into my body like milk into a container. And that's conventional and normal and there's nothing wrong with that. We have to function from that place in the world, but the problem is that it is very limiting. There are these much more open expansive dimensions of being that I feel are really our birthrights.
We have to be courageous enough to choose [those dimensions] and go through the process of letting go of some of the holdings, of some of the resistance in the body, finding what creates thought flow in the mind, finding the areas of tension in the body that actually create that, starting to let go of those things, accepting ourselves, actually feeling body, and really bringing it to life—this literally sensational feeling of presence of body. And yes, it is radical. What I find is the degree that I am able to kindle an awareness in every little part of the body all at once, that's when consciousness naturally and spontaneously undergoes these kinds of changes we're talking about and alluding to here. For me, dharma practice is less about trying to attain something, [and more about letting] go of whatever it is that I'm unconsciously doing that's generating the experience of body and the thought patterns in the mind that keep me suffering.
TS: Now right now, in this moment, somebody's listening. How can you help them listen in such a way that they were listening from an embodied place, an embodied listening?
WJ: Embodied anything, what it shares—you know, there [are] a couple of principles in common. The first is what happens when you include an awareness of the entire feeling presence of the body, in whatever it is that you are doing. Ordinarily what we find is that we exclude it. We keep the awareness and sensations down, we block them out, and we don't just thoughtfully relax and open into them. And to some degree, we may have to do that if we're doing something, engaged in activity, where we really, really have to use the mind and use its capabilities and abilities—of course, there's nothing wrong that. One of the great achievements of our species is that we've learned how to think conceptually. Having said that, there comes a point of diminishing return, so embodied listening is just—as you listen, let yourself also feel the entire body. So it's the entire body that almost becomes the organ of hearing. You can take that in and add seeing as well. If you can let yourself feel the entire body, you really relax into it. Honestly, Tami, I mostly see that what's necessary for people to do that is to be given permission. And this goes back to what we were talking about is the somataphobia. If you are able to do that, just give yourself permission.
Often when I'm talking to a group of people or working with students, I'll say that: "Just give yourself permission to let yourself feel." And it happens immediately in the room. There's more of that feeling quality that comes present. So you just give yourself permission to feel. Then add sounds. Let sounds come in without losing the awareness of body, and then if you add vision, you have these three primary sensory fields. And people can try this. It's actually quite easy. Let yourself do these three things simultaneously and open to the wholeness of the fields so that you feel the whole of your body. You hear everything that's here to be heard. You're not shutting out the noises of the furnace or the neighbors shouting across the street—[you're] actually embracing and open to everything.
It's the same thing with the visual field. If you really let yourself look at the whole visual field all at once, it's kind of a roughly elliptical shape with some fuzzy edges. But opening to the whole of the visual field, bringing the sense, seeing everything without seeing anything particular, opening to the awareness of all the sounds and simultaneously feeling the body—that's the place where, often, the unrelenting egoic perspective is. Again, there's nothing wrong it, except that it doesn't want to yield the floor when other parts of our being want to express themselves. Usually that dissolves away very quickly when you are able to, in a sense, enter into this merged awareness of these three primary fields.
TS: Okay, this is very interesting, these three primary fields. In your work with embodiment training, is that what you mostly focus on—these three fields of physical sensation, the visual field, and then the field of sound?
WJ: You know it is. I realize that I'm giving short change to smell and taste. [When] people enter into this "sensorium" of opening to all the fields at once and watching how that affects and actual dissolves our conventional awareness itself, many people will want to add taste or add smell. Honestly, smell is my least-developed sense. I don't know if that's gender specific or not. Mostly what I find is that the women that I work with find the inclusion of smell, and even just an "mmmmm"—you know, a feeling of the mouth, of taste—is important as well.
It's true those are the three fields that I pay attention to. What gets interesting about that is if you can open to each of those three fields—all of the fields—and have a balanced awareness of them, you can see it like an equilateral triangle. There's one field at each of the angles and it's balanced. So it's not that sound is predominating or body is predominating. It's the three of those that get balanced out. That's when this quality of rigid, hardened sense of self seems to dissolve away. When you get imbalanced in those fields—one of the major imbalances that we get is that we ignore the field of tactility, you know, the body, from head to foot, the shimmering presence. So if that triangle loses its "equilaterness," that's when we then start creating thoughts in the mind that take us even further away from any real natural ability to settle into that very relaxed, merged state.
TS: It's interesting, because as I'm here, I'm attempting this balance of these three fields, and what I find is that I have to be very, very open in order for that to happen.
WJ: Completely open. What I would suggest is functioning just from the perspective of the egoic mind. Honestly, I don't like to give the egoic mind bad press because I'm afraid what happens in some spiritual circles is that we think that the goal is to destroy the ego or kill the mind, and that obviously isn't what we want to do. But we [do want] to move into an awareness of how we have somewhat claustrophobically contracted into if you call it mind, if you call body, if you call it core of being. It's probably talking about the same things. And yes, what occurs when you start opening to the awareness of these three fields is that that contraction literally opens.
You know, the Buddhists talk about the shunia states, the shunyata states. It's a very open dimension of being. So that does seem to occur quite naturally and you get into this very open, very spacious, very dissolved, but strangely grounded condition. For me, it's just always felt like a birthright, and out of that experience, a lot of the dharma teachings and a lot of the Sufi teachings make a lot of sense to me.
TS: So I think an experience that most people have is that they find their mind to be some kind of record player, playing [the same thing] over and over. It seems like what you are saying is that if we can open—and you use this word "surrender" quite a lot and I'd like to hear more about that word and why you use it—to these three fields in balance, that that's an antidote to this repetitive thinking process that we often find ourselves in. Is that correct?
WJ: Absolutely. What that can effectively do in is pull the plug on the "monologue-gizer" who goes, as you are suggesting, on and on and on, at times ad nauseum. Certainly there's information that comes from that quality of mind and thought. It's almost like dreams.
But what we're talking about is the awareness of a condition that often leads people to dharma halls. We realize that the internal monologue of the mind is driving us crazy, and it doesn't seem to stop. Now again, what gets interesting about this in terms of the body—and we can extend this again to the whole sensorium, which would include the visual field and field of sounds—it's as though when we're lost in the mind, when that's in ascendancy, we have virtually no awareness of body. We're literally out of touch with the sensations that go to fill the body. It's kind of like a teeter-totter. If the mind and the chattering is going on and on (and we know what that's like, we're checked out in that moment), there's very little awareness of body. The teeter-totter shifts when we suddenly give ourselves permission to start feeling the body. In a sense, it's just shifting our focus or changing the foreground/background gestalt by bringing and allowing feeling presence to come forward.
I say it this way: It's less for me to feel the body, because that implies that "I," this entity, am feeling the body. Really, I think what works is that we just give the feeling presence permission to emerge, and it comes forth and it blossoms forth into a central position and experience. When it does that, the teeter-totter shifts and that's when the thoughts in the mind—you know, at times it's very much literally like pulling a plug on them. And that can be a relief for all of us, whether we're dharma students or not.
TS: And so the emphasis on this term "surrender" is that there's some kind of grip that we are surrendering?
WJ: Yes, I think that's true, Tami. And that really comes to me through all my years and background through body-oriented therapies. I was trained in—oh boy, a long time ago, 1976, with Ida Rolf. Sometimes I've joked that I think I'm like a reformed smoker who just goes on and on and praises the delights and how much better it feels not to have tobacco in our system or something. As a kid, I wasn't in my body. I was not an athlete. I was not really a body kind of guy. It wasn't until my early 20s that I really started unearthing and reconnecting this whole dimension of physical presence. That obviously shifted very much for me. What I've come to understand is that—again, if I can speak with dharma metaphors—we talk about reaction as that which creates suffering. That we're not accepting the reality as it is.
Buddhists or Theravadans will say that the accumulation of these moments of reactions create what they call sincaras, or contractions, deep in the core of the body-mind. So this is what I feel that we are moving into and really working to let go. I was trained as a Rolfer, of hands-on manipulation. You know, the whole realm of body-oriented therapy—everybody is looking at this. How can we start letting go of the unnecessary tension? There's a certain amount of direct intervention that can happen. I think ultimately to get down to the core of the contraction—and this is what I've been doing as a sitting practitioner, involved with playing with balance on the cushion. If you're playing with upright balance, that allows you to let go without toppling over. I do feel that the primary action of meditation is not so much an action—it's not something that we do. It's something that we're undoing or letting go of or surrendering. Surrendering can never be forced. It really is that, a letting go—like you're holding something in your hand, you just [say] "ah." You relax, you let go, you allow, and you accept.
This is the part that gets tricky, because I do see that ultimately the sitting practice is a surrender practice. You establish your posture, you surrender to the breath, and things start moving in the body. And then it's as though a current takes over and you can just go along with it and let it do whatever it needs to do. The tricky thing about a surrender practice [is] you don't want to say too much or give too many instructions or people will miss the surrender. You can't say too little or people won't really know what we're talking about. Yes, as you are suggesting, I do see the process of spiritual unfolding or growth as very much of a letting go or a surrendering process where the kinks or the blockages or the residues simply just start unwinding and letting go. As they do so, it really alters an experience of physical embodiment, but it also radically affect our condition of consciousness.
TS: Now, I want to talk more about what you've discovered as a Rolfer, because I think that's interesting. There you are, you're working on people's bodies. They're coming in because they have some kind of pain, long-term physical tension, and I'm curious what you've discovered working with people in that way that has informed your embodiment training approach.
WJ: That's a really interesting question. In the early years, around Ida Rolf, much of the focus of Rolfing—sure, we were learning to do the hands-on session because that caused the tissues to relax, lengthen, come unstuck, open, change, you know, for the structure to change—was on creating this more balanced kind of structure. That's what Ida was very keen on. She presented a concept that she called "the line." And she really presented that as the highest value to which the work could aspire. What she was getting at is that if we could figure out a way to be in our bodies in such a way that the structure of the body would be supported by gravity rather our having to fight with it, that frees up everything, both at the levels of the body and at the level of consciousness.
Think about it for a moment—like the leaning Tower of Pisa. A body like that would be exerting constant muscular tension. And think of the many meditators who sit with somewhat of a slump posture, with the head falling over. That's actually a very popular posture in Southeast Asia. The problem that I see with that is we're having then to brace ourselves from crumbling and collapsing into the earth. Bracing is done by muscular holding and tension. It numbs out the awareness of body that creates more tension that creates thoughts in the mind.
To some degree, I took those early teachings and the notions of Dr. Rolf's to heart. She actually didn't want Rolfing to become a glorified form of physiotherapy that worked on symptoms and pain—it [just] happens to work that way. So there's nothing wrong with practitioners offering that kind of service. But this whole notion of what she was really after was this bringing of the body to a condition of uprightness that would allow you to let go. And she believed that that would [bring], in a sense, if I'm remembering this accurately, what she used to refer to as "evolutionary energies." You know, that makes some sense, because evolution—as much as we talk about it as wanting it to be the growth and expansion of consciousness in its graphic and most simple form—is really just coming from the horizontal spine into a more upright, vertical one.
TS: So now, when you're talking about the line, you're saying within the human body, in front of the spine or in the center of the body, there's some type of…
WJ: It doesn't exist as any kind of anatomical coordinate. It's interesting. Traditionally, we all tried to figure out the line just from the point of view of structure. There are Buddhist schools, I know of some in Japan, that really work with a very straight spine and the head sitting on top in your sitting practice. The difficulty is that sometimes it can get a bit rigid, but certainly the line would involve stacking the major segments of the body—one on top of each other, just in the same way that a child builds a snowman. But I don't think that structural principles alone are enough to give us what we're after.
Also, it's interesting that we're mentioning Rolfing because Ida Rolf is a somatic teacher. I actually have always thought of her as one of my most important spiritual teachers as well. First of all, there's this notion of upright balance that I took into dharma practice, by figuring out that sitting practice must be about learning how to sit in these ways in which gravity can support you so you can actually let go and relax.
Now, the other piece to this puzzle that is very, very important for me in my practice is another statement that [Ida] actually said during one of my very first training classes. Someone asked her about breathing, and how a Rolfed body breathes. Her answer was something like, "In a truly balanced body, as you breathe, movement can occur at every joint in the body in response to the breath." And she said that actually included the sutures in the skull and the joints between the small bones in the feet. And I thought was probably a bit crazy, but you know, over the years, I've had those kinds of experiences. In a sense, it's what I bring to dharma practice and sitting practice. I'm going a little off from the question you asked, but it's an important piece that I like people to hear.
TS: Well, yes. I mean, what you're saying is so unusual. I've never heard a person define meditation as a surrender practice. And the reason I'm emphasizing that is it seems in what you are describing that when we can discover this line, whether we're sitting or standing, that we're in a state of surrender if this line is active and awakened in us. Is that correct, would you say?
WJ: Yes, it becomes a lot easier to sit back, obviously allowing breath to breathe through the body, over and over, and over again. And then what needs to shift or occur does so naturally and spontaneously. Again, as I was saying earlier, I don't see these practices as something that I'm trying to perfect like a skill, or attain some kind of state, or craft it from the ground up. More than anything, it's a letting go of what I'm unconsciously doing, a lot of reaction that's literally darned it to the tissues of the body—letting that go, and then surrendering to whatever wants to occur.
The other piece is what I call "the line." In sitting practice, I work a lot with alignment. Even the Buddha says that. "Sit with the spine straight." The whole reason for doing that is that you can then relax. Relaxation is no more or less complicated than surrendering—there's that word again—the weight of the body to the pull of gravity, just to let down, because if you're in an upright balance or balancing place, you can let go like that and you don't topple over.
The third component that is critical is then realizing—and this goes back to that statement of Ida Rolf's—that the body can stay in constant motion while you're sitting on your cushion. And this is the point that I want to make: when I sit and look out over a group of sitting meditators, the most common thing that strikes me is how overly frozen and still people are sitting in their bodies, as though we've come to think that part of the goal of the meditation is to emulate or look like a stone garden statue of the Buddha.
This kind of freezing of the body—[when] you see it, [you see the] heads don't move very much. The spine doesn't move very much, and all it's doing is, I believe, encasing the breath. Really keeping it from letting go. It keeps us from surrendering to this breath that just wants to keep breathing through us, and a breath [that we've] surrendered to becomes a potent force both at the level of the body and the level of consciousness. Breath held in and imprisoned by unnecessarily inert flesh—meaning that we're sitting there and there's no movement at the joints. You know how the force that causes a wave just moves effortlessly through a body of water and the water just lets go. It's very malleable and it lets this force cause the wave. This is what I want to bring into dharma practice—really into our lives. It's not just sitting on the cushion, but the rest of the mindfulness practice as well.
But even just thinking about the spine—you know, one of the principles that I'll work with is that there are joints between every vertebrae of the spine and they're not unlike joints anywhere else in the body. They're designed to move. So in every breath, there can be a rocking, undulating, expansive quality. In the beginning, people may have to encourage this, but after awhile it becomes utterly natural. And you realize that [by] not allowing this constant motion to occur within a sitting practice, you're actually in reaction and are blocking and inhibiting. What the practice, as far as I can tell, is designed to make happen—now in truth, is this quality of inviting, accepting, natural, spontaneous, resilient motion throughout the entire body, never coming to rest, in the process of sitting meditation, that, I feel, is a fairly radical idea.
TS: An interesting part of the embodiment training involves gazing, a Sufi practice where we gaze at our partner or at someone that we're practicing gazing with. Talk a little bit about that and how it relates to embodiment.
WJ: I'm glad you brought that up. In some ways I think of myself as straddling this sort of common river. I've got one foot firmly planted in dharma practices and the other foot planted in realm of ecstatic gazing practices. I see them as fundamentally informing each other and that [they're] all part of the same common river.
The interesting thing about the gazing practice is how the gazing practice came into my life. Utterly by chance! A great friend of mine and I are sitting at opposite ends of the sofa. We were really great friends and [we were] really probing what authentic behavior might be like. One day we were sitting at either ends of the sofa and we turn and we look at each other and hold each other's gaze for a moment. [That often] happens [when] you're having a latte at Starbucks and you look at someone and you hold someone's gaze, [then] you look away immediately, very quickly. I remember Phil saying, "Whoa, what was that and why did we look away?" I said, "Well, I looked away because I think I feel too much with that kind of intensified contact." And then he said, "That's true for me too, but what's wrong with that?" [He was] my first great friend in this practice and we explored it in a lot of depth. We spent a lot of time there.
When people come together and hold that gaze and get over the awkwardness that immediately causes most of us to turn away, what starts happening—again, it sounds like repeat of what we've been saying up till now—[is] the conventional sense of egoic separation just starts dissolving away. We start entering into a much more shared, what Rumi would call, consciousness of union that feels very dissolved and merged. And this just happens with this practice.
It is also an extraordinarily body-stimulating practice. [For some] background, Rumi talks some about a principle that his father—who was a very, very accomplished mystic in his own right—taught him, and that concept is called ma'iyya. The great Rumiologist Annemarie Schimmel describes ma'iyya as this notion that God, or whatever word works for you, cannot be found in the mind alone, cannot be found in the heart alone. Both of those statements are pretty radical sounding, for a Buddhist to hear the first one and for a Sufi to hear the second one. But the principle is that God cannot be found in the mind alone, the heart alone, but needs to be felt in every part of the body. One of the things that's extraordinary about the gazing practice is that it does that. It radically stimulates the awareness of physical presence. In that awareness, you know we were talking about the teeter-totter—when you really stimulate strongly the awareness of body in this unified field of shimmering presence, the mind just shuts off.
I did some dharma practices in my late 20s and had some very deep immersions into the gazing experience. When I got back into dharma practice, especially the body-oriented dharma practices, [I felt] a lot of joy and gratitude. And I realized, oh my God, this is what the gazing practice is also doing. That's why I say I'm straddling this river, that usually people are dharma practitioners or ecstatic Sufi practitioners, but I see how both not only inform each other but hold a missing key of the completion of the other. It's that kind of thing.
TS: Let's talk more about gazing. So here you're working with a partner. What do you do? Just relax and look?
WJ: Absolutely. And in some ways that is almost all the instruction that I like to give, because again, usually what'll happen is that people will sit down and start entering into the practice. For example, I might do an evening presentation. I often talk about Rumi, and I talk about the relationship between Rumi and Shams. It was, for a long time, a great mystery of what they were actually doing together, but reading through the whole of his poetry, it's everywhere—gazing! Holding the gaze of your great friend, the dissolving that occurs, it's actually everywhere in the poetry. And then [I'll] invite people into the practice. Inevitably, what happens first is there's a lot of nervousness. A lot of tittering and giggling that can often happen as we are not accustomed to being this real and this embodied in connection with another person who is doing exactly the same thing.
So, usually, people can go through a period of awkwardness and something then just happens. Part of what I love about this practice is that it is so simple. You get through your nervousness and then something happens and you just settle in. Body comes forward. It's as though you're looking at your partner from a different place than you ordinarily look. It's as though the body becomes the organ of vision, and then what naturally starts occurring is that physical sensations come up to the surface and pass away. And you may get in touch with different parts of yourself that ordinarily that you don't feel. You may get in touch with a scared child or wise older person or different aspects. It's kind of like going on an archaeological dig because you're just allowing body to really truly to be here. And it just keeps coming to the surface and just passing away.
At the level of mind, the separateness between you and your partner—you know, it's tricky to really talk about this, Tami, because in truth, I don't understand what this is. I just know that this quality of separation starts lifting. You and your partner entered into this shared experience of what, again, Rumi would call the "consciousness of union." And it's just a very, very natural condition. The longer you do it, the deeper you go. [That] is how it works. Look at the sitting practice [or] the gazing practice. You may have a moment or two and it always feels good. But the real depths of the practices come about through long hours or long days in retreats that go on for a week.
With the gazing practice, I realized that it was so extraordinarily healing. Again, I come from a Rolfing background, and this allows deep holdings in the body that you never even knew about to come to the surface and pass away. It allows this very quickly and dynamically to have an experience of dissolving the conventional sense of self—you know, that hardened rigid place that we function from most of the time—and actually have an experience of these very dissolved shunyata states.
TS: OK, now I get how [with] the experience the self dropping away, a sense of union with the person you are gazing with would emerge, but how do holdings in the body drop away through the practice of gazing?
WJ: That's a good question. What seems to happen is that in the gazing practice what you do is utterly just start relaxing into and accepting yourself and your experience of body exactly how it is. Meaning, you don't try to gussy it up or you don't try to make yourself [feel] how you would like to feel or how [you] think [you] should feel. What the practice does is that it puts you in touch with what's real. And look, for most people, sure, there's going to be shimmer and a lot of residues from these patterns. Some of them are just purely structural patterns of holding and tension. Some of them are patterns of holding and tension that are fueled by emotional or energetic kinds of reactions. You get in touch with the reality as it is and that's what allows the holdings to start coming undone.
I've always felt that it's a very strange law that governs transformation. If I can actually feel into and accept myself exactly as I am, really just feel this and relax, it starts changing on its own. The corollary to that, of course, is that if I start trying to change something about myself, I mostly only succeed in fueling the persistence of whatever this condition is that is causing difficulty. So again, it's a very spontaneously natural, organic process, and it's a bit like connecting with a current in a river. You can connect with the body through the gaze, and then you see it's starting to shift around all over the place—bodily sensations start shifting around, the visual field gets very interesting and it starts shifting around, and what keeps you on track is that you keep letting go and allowing it.
TS: This practice sounds so beautiful, and I'm wondering why people don't do more gazing practice. Part of what's occurring to me is that it's a very, very intimate feeling, and that we're not accustomed to that kind of tremendous intimacy—and potentially even sexual arousal—with people in a practice environment. I mean, when you actually look into another person's eyes, it's very intimate and can be very erotic.
WJ: Both of those are certainly true. It forces us to actually feel what's going on in our body. Yes, it is extremely intimate, and when I work with people who want to go out and share this practice with others, I stress that this is extraordinarily intimate—the ultimate sharing of energy with another person—so you really need for both participants to know what you're doing. I don't know about you, but I've encountered people in my life who use eye contact as kind of an aggressive sort of thing, and you can feel that immediately. What we're talking about is something completely different—holding the gaze and letting go. And yes, it does get intimate. The nature of the practice is to just allow sensations to come and go and pass away.
Yes, there will be people who may feel some kind of karmic connection with another person that may lead into a relationship, but it doesn't necessarily work that way, and it certainly doesn't always work that way by any means. I've had a number of what I call great friends in my life that I've met and who wanted to explore this practice with me as much as I did. And of those about five of six [people], two of them were physical lovers of mine and the others simply weren't. That energy just isn't there.
Certainly when I teach this in a workshop or retreat context, I tell people, "Look, you can do this with anybody and what likely will happen is that you will find certain people that you just simply go deeper with." Or [I tell them] that there [are] deeper kinds of dissolvings that occur and those people may become friends. Generally, you open in a way that's appropriate and [that] the karmic conditions of your life allow. The gazing practice is not a practice to be feared, because if I look into someone else's eyes, we're [not] going to run off together to the Caribbean or something. That again is a somataphobic kind of fear that keeps up from opening to these kinds of practices.
Having said that, what's also true is that most of us have so much stored in the body that we haven't given ourselves permission to feel. And it's going to come up to the surface, whether it's anger, or fear, or sadness, or held-in energies that may feel that they could be relieved in a traditional, sexual kind of embrace. I'll work with couples who have that kind of experience going on, but it certainly is not any kind of goal to this practice, nor is it something to be feared.
What's to be feared is everything is going to come up. A lot of times I work with people who say I really want to start feeling the body that you are talking about and that's great. But often what happens is that when they start feeling it, they become very aware of why they haven't wanted to [feel it before,] because the energies are strong and the feelings are there. But either we face the reality of our karma, which is the condition that we're in right now, or we turn literally our eyes away from it, avert our gaze, and then enshrine it forever. And that seems to be the trade-off that happens.
The other thing that's interesting about the gazing state is—and again, I don't know how to explain it, but it has always appeared to me once I settle in deeply with someone—it's really impossible to behave unethically. And that place—if one is truly softening and continuing to surrender into this shared current that starts getting generated from the contact, the friction of the gaze. So it's a wonderful practice, but yes, it brings up lots of fears and assignations of taboo.
TS: I just have two final questions for you, Will. Here's the first one: In my own life, a path of embodiment has been the focus of my spiritual practice. It's been absolutely critical for me and has been the most transformative kind of work that I've encountered. And yet, it's been curious to me—you know, here I've been focused on a type of embodiment approach for the last decade or so, and what's curious to me is that it's not more popular in spiritual life or spiritual approaches. It's a very small part of the population that seems really interested and committed to the embodied approach to spiritual transformation. And I'm curious what your thoughts are about that.
WJ: It is curious, isn't it? And it's actually not only a small or tiny percentage of the populous at large, but it's even in some ways a relatively small percentage of spiritual practitioners of whatever stripe or ilk.
A lot of that is [because] I feel traditional spiritual practice has mostly been couched in transcendent terms. That, in a sense, the goal of the practice is to transcend this dimension and enter into or encounter a different quality of experience unfettered by the heavy grossness of nature, the world we live in, and by extension our bodies. My own experience has been that it never gave me what I am after. The whole idea of opening into the body is much more [about] opening into what is imminent, what's right now. There's no goal. You know, if I do my practice, 20 years from now maybe I'll be OK, but it doesn't work that way. It's always about right now. This is the only time that we can feel. We can feel the body.
My own feeling about why we're so tentative about entering into and embracing this is that it's powerful. It's palpably potent. The sensations that you kindle, they then become doorways to these deeper energies of being of body, they're there, they're natural. I don't want to leave any stone unturned, right? These kinds of energies really radically shake us up. Sometimes I feel that what a lot of people want from a therapeutic experience or a body work experience, or for that matter even a spiritual experience, is to have some of the rough edges of our life smoothed out. But [at] the core, [they say,] "Thank you very much, I'm fine just how I am."
The kinds of practices that I'm talking [about,] and this kind of attitude that embraces body as sensation, as tactile presence, and constant motion—they don't just smooth out the rough edges of our life. Sometimes pejoratively I'll refer to that as how we like to rearrange the furniture in our prison cell. And that can be good, but I'm more interested in, how could I actually emerge out of the bars of the prison? What would that experience as a human being be like in this moment? Well, it would be very vitally alive. I know that. It would be an experience that would be aware of the entire body from head to foot. I mean, the sensations are there. Why don't we feel them? And hear and see [them]? Yes, it involves kind of a radical shift in our experience of who we are and what we are and what it is to be alive as human beings.
TS: Just one final question for you: Our program is called "Insights at the Edge," and I'm always curious to know what people's personal edge is. So in your case, in terms of this process of embodiment, what's your edge?
WJ: That's a really interesting question, because I think where I am—and it does feel like I'm way out on an edge here—is actually a return to the most basic Buddhist text that there is, the Satipatthana Sutta that culminates in this phrase: as you breathe in, breathe in through the whole body; as you breathe out, breathe out through the whole body.
That [phrase] has propelled me into embracing two things that aren't necessarily all that embraced in spiritual practice, let alone conventional life. One is what we've been talking about: opening to the awareness and just letting go through the whole body to each and every sensation in the body. To feel that [sensation,] but almost more radically, there is no way that you can breathe through the whole body if you can't feel it for starters, right? And the second part of that is that you cannot possibly experience a breath that can breathe through the whole if there is holding, stillness, and frozen resistance at any of the joints of the body.
So in many ways, my sitting practice right now is not becoming "dancer-ly," because it isn't necessarily large motions, but the spine is constantly moving on the inhalations and exhalations. I'm constantly looking out for where the blind spots are in my body that are not participating in this coordinated, undulating motion that's utterly natural when we let go. And so, in answer to your question, my cutting edge—in a sense I feel like I'm on something of a mission to eradicate the epidemic of frozen stillness from the dharma halls, the zendos, the retreat centers of the world, because that will allow the body to breathe, almost amoeba like. Those motions are there. [We need] to really let go of these places of stillness and holding. That's what I believe can be truly transformational for people to start bringing into their sitting practice.
TS: Wonderful. I've been speaking with Will Johnson. He has created a new audio learning series with Sounds True called Awakening the Body: The Path of Somatic Surrender, and it's filled with guided practices as well as teachings and instruction on gazing practice—all available at SoundsTrue.com. Will, I thank you so much.
WJ: Oh, you're welcome. It was really fun to do this with you Tami.
TS: It was an undulating conversation. Thank you!
WJ: An undulating conversation, hallelujah!
TS: SoundsTrue.com. Many voices, one journey. Thanks for listening.